REVIEW: Blackmon’s surrealist artistry dupes, delights

Guest review by: Anthony Bannon

Julie Blackmon’s family art walks the tightrope of photography, long the medium of contradictions.

Her full-color digital prints quote 17th-century, Dutch master painters, whose elaborations on the household made mythic the commonplace. With the composure of fine art, both Blackmon and the Dutch are known for taming the chaos of life — even life with children and their parents.
Represented by the distinguished Robert Mann Gallery in New York, Blackmon within the past decade has won the attention of distinguished public collections, temporary exhibitions and numerous publications. Her work has merited three books, all with the estimable art house Radius Books. A selection from her last two books, Domestic Vacations and Homegrown, is on view in the Strohl Art Center’s Bellowe Family Gallery.
Blackmon is a heartland lady and mother of three, living in the Show-Me State of Missouri. Her photographs are staged icons of Life with Kids: The Lost Mitten, child in the snow, Icon; the Airstream in the backyard as a playhouse Icon; New Chair, as in new-chair-in-old-chair-out, Icon. And there are many, many more. Almost always she nails it. And while that is not a given with photo arrangements like this, in the words of the legendary Kenny Rogers, “You’ve got to know when to hold em / Know when to fold em.”
Blackmon does.
Show too much, and it becomes all show; show too little, and there should be no bother. Blackmon walks photography’s tightrope.
It is the perfect medium for her vision, for the photograph is naturally surreal. Capturing the light reflected from the subject before it, the camera freezes and frames activity with an unparalleled veracity. It is more than real, something else again, surreal.
We say it is “true to life” when it isn’t. The photograph is a flimsy, skinny artifact, stripped of sound, smell, hot and cold. This isn’t life at all. Yet when we share a picture of a pal, we say, “this is Oscar,” not a “this is a photograph of Oscar.” We believe in it, as we are at first ready to believe in Blackmon’s odd slice of her life.
Point is, though, that she has stacked all the cards: not only framed and frozen, but mixed and matched. That photographed baby in the crib crying in the room beyond the vintage wall paper has been staged, such that the book Sleeping Beauty on the shelf above is just, in fact, too much.
The baby trying to feed the tiger rug a lollipop should test our credulity when set in front of three other kids posing at a photo drop cloth in the living room, with someone in red fingernails impossibly holding the backdrop in place. Blackmon leaves clues all over the place that this is fancier than fact.
The wonder of it all, though, is that at first, we take the bait. Her stage extends just so far. Discovering that we have been duped is half the fun. The other half is what we might take away from these wonderful fabrications: perhaps something about visual literacy? Or lessons and carols about the lives we live and the families that challenge and support us?
Julie Blackmon has been in this process of discovery long enough to make a culture out of it — and a living. Through her work, she announces a way of being in the world — for herself and for her audience. She has made a telling signature of the loving absurdities she imagines and stages with family and friends. What a happening that must be!
This is a little show at the Strohl, but well worth the visit to marvel at the artist’s discernment, in the Kenny Roger’s sagacious words, she shows the way to “knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep.” Well worth the gamble of your time, through July 26.

Anthony Bannon is the executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State. He is the director emeritus of the George Eastman House, the International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, New York.